This season, the Norfolk Admirals made history when they won a pro-hockey record 28 straight games to finish the regular season.
On Saturday night, the Admirals won their fourth straight game by getting a 3-1 win over the St. John’s IceCaps in Game 2 of the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals.
Although Norfolk’s four-game streak is modest compared to its 28-game winning streak from the regular season, the Admirals’ current run has more importantly given the Lightning’s top minor-league affiliate a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series whose winner will earn a berth in the Calder Cup Finals.
“I think we’ve kind of got it going right now,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “Tonight’s win was a close game and you have to win close games in the playoffs. We were doing that on our streak and we’ve started doing it in the playoffs now, too.”
While their four straight wins in the latter stages of the playoffs make it clear that the Admirals have built a lot of momentum over the last 10 days, Jon Cooper was absolutely correct in his assessment of Game 2’s tightness, which came on the heels of a Game 1 where Norfolk handily beat St. John’s by a score of 6-1.
The teams were in fact tied at 1-1 in Game 2 until the latter stages of the second period, when Norfolk’s playoff hero, Alexandre Picard, fielded a carom off the boards behind IceCaps goalie Eddie Pasquale and stuffed his seventh goal of the playoffs into a vacated left side of the net for what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
Picard then ended the IceCaps’ comeback hopes by adding his second goal of the night into an empty net with 53 seconds remaining in the third period, giving him his AHL-best eighth playoff goal and 14th playoff point of the season.
“Picard is a man possessed right now,” added Cooper. “He’s one of our older guys and he’s been here before. We have a lot of guys who have been here before like (Mike) Angelidis, (Brandon) Segal, Picard, (Trevor) Smith and (Jean-Philippe) Cote; they’ve all been here before and know what it takes to win. When these guys do these things in the playoffs, it shows our younger guys the way so they can be the leaders in the years to come.”
While Picard was the Norfolk veteran that proved to be the game breaker in Game 2, he may never have had the chance to provide his team with the offense it needed to take a victory if it wasn’t for the goaltending of Dustin Tokarski.
Tokarski finished the evening with 30 saves on 31 shots, winning his second straight decision after emerging from the bench in favor of Jaroslav Janus, who had started the Admirals’ final two games against the Connecticut Whale in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Richard Panik celebrate a win on Saturday night in Norfolk (Photo by John Wright / Norfolk Admirals)
“Our two goalies definitely push each other,” said Alexandre Picard. “It’s healthy competition. That type of competition is what makes us a successful team. Everybody pushes for ice time and it makes everybody around them better.”
Tokarski’s best work came in the second period, when, after St. John’s’ John Albert tied the game 1:51 into the middle period, he withstood an IceCaps flurry that was the Winnipeg Jets’ affiliate’s strongest pushback in the series so far.
“We had guys who were stepping up to block shots on every shift,” added Picard. “Guys like (Scott) Jackson, (Jean-Philippe) Cote and (Radko) Gudas were absolute vacuums and they were just eating the pucks up. Our goalie was unbelievable again, too.”
The IceCaps’ spirited second-period play came after the Admirals dominated the opening period, which began when Richard Panik started the night’s scoring by rifling a bullet of a snap shot past IceCaps goalie Eddie Pasquale in the first period’s opening minute, off of a rush with Trevor Smith and Mike Kostka.
“That was a perfect rush all the way up the ice,” said Cooper. “It started in our zone and we did everything we wanted to do all the way up the ice. It was just solid, fundamental hockey all the way through. It was a great shot by Panik, who has a rocket of a shot, too.”
Panik fed off his early goal by hitting a post just minutes later, as the only thing that kept Norfolk from blowing St. John’s out early in the game was the fine goaltending of Eddie Pasquale.
“I thought Pasquale was outstanding in the first 6-8 minutes,” said Cooper. “If it wasn’t for how he played, we could’ve taken a big lead early. That’s the goalie he’s been in the playoffs and he’s a tough guy to beat. When you get two against him, you hope it stands up and it did tonight.”
After getting pulled midway through Game 1 after allowing four goals on 21 shots, Pasquale rebounded to finish Game 2 by making 35 saves on 37 shots and getting named as the game’s third star.
However, despite receiving a strong goaltending performance and playing a much better team game than they did in Game 1, the IceCaps fell to 1-5 in six meetings against the Admirals this season.
Given that an Admirals win in Game 3 on Monday night in St. John’s would give Norfolk a very commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, the IceCaps are now in a position where their season will end if they don’t solve their Admirals bugaboo fairly soon.
“You have to win four games and we know they’ll just get harder and harder to win,” said Cooper. “We’re two games closer than they are, but there’s a lot of hockey to be played and it won’t be easy to go up to a place that sells out every night. We held serve by winning our home games, so now we’re going to have to go win in a tough place on the road.”
Following Game 3 on Monday, the teams will play Game 4 in St. John’s on Tuesday, with the series also possibly playing Game 5 in Maritime Canada before potentially returning to Norfolk for both Game 6 and Game 7, 10 days from now.